Speaking generally, perhaps too generally, and with a dab of artistic license, I tend to classify (pun intended!) medical ratings serving in naval hospitals ashore as amongst the most sullen and the most starched, with an inherent hearing disorder. Uncharacteristically uncharitable of me, some may think. I am near certain, however, that possibly the only ones likely to take issue with me on this would be the senior officers. For some peculiar reason, I am reminded of Brooke’s farcical description of his neighbouring villagers:
“For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat and packed with guile,
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington”.
By contrast, I have found those serving at sea to be amongst the most spirited, the most cheerful and the most cooperative. ‘Curiouser and curiouser’ as Alice remarked in her wonderland, considering that all of them come from the same stock.
It’s only by way of comparison, and for this reason alone, that Brooke springs again to mind:
“In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth.”
I hope you get the drift. Anyway, this article is dedicated to those who made it possible in the first place.
My first significant brush with the medics occurred whilst I was the Executive Officer of a submarine chaser, PNS BALUCHISTAN, and by default it’s Medical Officer. A Leading Medical Assistant, Talib Hussain by name, was the only one in the ship’s medical department and again by default, the departmental incharge. It so happened that he disagreed with me on a particular departmental matter. Noting that he wasn’t budging from his stand, I gently reminded him that the Medical Officer’s word generally goes. “You may be the Medical Officer, Sir,”, he said respectfully, stretching to his full 5 feet four, “but I’m still the Doctor”. Spoken like a true professional!
A few years down the line, I found myself again in the Executive Officer’s shoes, this time around on board PNS TIPPU SULTAN, a Gearing class destroyer, which blessedly had a dedicated Medical Officer of it’s own. I couldn’t help note, and be mildly amused by, how well the three medical ratings, a Petty Officer (Medical), a Leading Medical Assistant and an MA 1, gelled together, both professionally and socially. The department, however, became the source of a minor headache once, as the annual inspection of the ship neared. I found that, with barely a week to go, it was business as usual at the Sick Bay, with no effort being diverted towards cleanship / painting to present a fresh look on inspection day. Every time I checked, I was assured with one voice, “Don’t worry at all about us; when the time comes, we will be better prepared than any other department”. With hardly a few days to go, I saw a sudden flurt of activity, with at least six persons jammed together in the narrow confines of the Sick Bay. Each figure had a roller, brush or cotton waste in his hand and each body was duly shielded by a makeshift head and face gear. While I was standing at the doorway looking stunned, I noticed by my side a slightly bemused PO (Med), who, as an answer to my silent query about generating this work force, said smugly “I told you, Sir, we have our ways”. True to form, the medical department really stood out on the fateful day.
A short while later, I again ended up in the Executive Officer’s slot, this time on board PNS SHAMSHER, a Leander class frigate under acquisition from UK. The ship was not provided with a dedicated Medical Officer on the pretext that a sister ship PNS ZULFIQUAR was being acquired in almost the same timeframe, little realizing that the two ships would not be making their way home together. I, as a Medical Officer by default again, thus kept my fingers crossed as the ship commenced it’s homebound passage. Shortly after the ship exited the Gulf of Aden, it was brought to my knowledge that a Mechanician First Class, complaining of severe abdominal pain, had been admitted in Sick Bay. At a little past midnight, I learned that the illness had taken a more serious turn, with a visit to Sick Bay confirming my fears. Seeing him in such a convoluted and semi-conscious state, I fired off a number of questions to the Petty Officer (Medical), a gentle and conscientious soul, who kept parrying with “Can’t really say, Sir”, fearing that an incorrect assessment by the ship’s ‘Doctor’ might not prove too healthy for his career. I thus had to rely on my own rudimentary medical knowledge, which favoured the Appendicitis theory, simply because the pain seemed to me to stem from a region where I imagined the appendix to be, or to put it another way, for want of a better idea. I was also aware that this condition, if it got out of hand, could result in the more fatal condition Peritonitis.
Rapid action was needed and contact had to be established directly with someone who could authorize a diversion. It was with some difficulty that we managed to get in touch with the Director Naval Operations at his residence in Islamabad, courtesy of Radio Muscat, after having emphasized the emergency bit. I put in my strong recommendation for the ship being permitted a brief stopover at Salalah, which was around six hours steaming time from our present location.
“Is there any other option?” he queried wearily. “If there were, sir, believe me, I wouldn’t be calling you at this ungodly hour from the middle of the ocean”, I replied. After getting a verbal go-ahead, the ship shaped course towards Salalah, which was then a sleepy naval port, quite unlike the thriving commercial port that it is today.
A short while later, Radio Muscat called to ascertain as to who to bill for the Islamabad call. “Our SPNO (Senior Pakistani Naval Officer) at Muscat”, I replied unhesitatingly. In hindsight, I like to think that the mini-crisis we generated for the youthful SPNO in terms of patient-handling and telephone bills must have played no small part in the grooming process that led him to ultimately occupy the top spot in the Navy.
The patient was landed at Salalah early in the morning. I later learnt that after being administered the necessary medical treatment at Oman, he was taken via a routine PIA flight to Karachi, where he was indeed operated upon at PNS SHIFA for having his appendix removed. As a postscript, I may add that the ship remained ‘doctorless’ even after arriving back home, for quite some time. The ship’s relations with the Base Medical Centre at PN Dockyard also remained under strain, as it held us responsible for not taking a Medical Officer with us to UK. Whenever we needed some assistance from BMC, we were met with the stoic reply, “If you can manage without a Medical Officer in UK, why can’t you do so here?” With time though, things straightened themselves out.
I end with an apology to those whose feelings I may have inadvertently bruised through my irreverent ranting and a prayer for everyone: “May Allah preserve our health”.
Note: This article was published in the ‘Navy News’ in it’s edition of March 2011.